The story of Jesse Owens and his exploits at the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany is an important one and one that needs to be told, but is Director Stephen Hopkins’ Race the movie to tell it?
Race basically tells the story of Jesse Owens’ (Stephan James) life from the time he goes to The Ohio State University through his victories at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. As is usually the case in biopics, we are rushed through some key moments before getting to the crux of the film, which in this case is the Olympics. When Owens gets to college, he makes the acquaintance of Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who coaches him through both college and in the Olympics. Through Snyder and Owens’ relationship, the audience can see how back in the 30s, a white man and a black man can form a bond, but still not totally understand the other’s world. As Owens’ feats in track and field make him a celebrity, he deals with discrimination both on and off the field as well as the adoration of the ladies, word of which makes its way back to his girlfriend—and mother to his daughter—Ruth (Shanice Banton). On the eve of the Olympics, though, Owens is presented with a choice: go and most likely win or refuse to go in defiance of Adolph Hitler’s policies and beliefs. It was interesting to see that Owens had this dilemma, but there isn’t a lot of tension with it as the audience knows that he ultimately goes to compete.
While the story mainly follows Owens’ ups and downs, there are two other stories running concurrently throughout the film. One involves the United States Olympic Committee and the debate on whether to even attend the Games or not due to the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies. The measure to boycott the Games is headed by Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), the president of the Amateur Athletic Union. On the other side was Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who would later go on to become the IOC (International Olympic Committee) President. Brundage goes on a fact-finding mission to Germany and tells Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) to downplay the anti-Semitism, or the U.S. will withdraw from the Games. Hitler wanted all the nations he could get to the Games in order to legitimize the Nazi regime and to show that his Aryan athletes were better than everyone else. The other side story involves film director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) and her efforts to chronicle the Games in her film, Olympia.
While Race is a crowd-pleasing film, I felt it could have been a bit grittier, especially in regards to the discrimination Owens and the African-American community faced in the United States. I felt that the film never reached the heights of 42, the Jackie Robinson story and that was a fairly safe film in itself. The true effect of racism is downplayed a bit in Race, while Jackie Robinson is called every name in the book in 42. Now, that could be because Robinson was trying to break into “America’s Pastime,” while African-Americans had been competing in the Olympics since 1904. However, the film kind of tells “the Legend of Jesse Owens” and undercuts that a bit to make the film a bit more vanilla and family-friendly. One thing I really did like about the film, though, was how it illuminated some aspects of Owens’ Games experience that I didn’t know, such as his rivalry/friendship with German long jumper, Luz Long (David Kross). It’s a touching moment in the film when Long reaches out to Owens in the spirit of competition, wanting to get Owens’ best performance.
The cast does a good job overall. I really liked James as Owens. He plays Owens as a man conflicted about his role in history, but at the same time, a simple man who just wanted to run. James was great in Selma as well and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him. Sudeikis shows some dramatic chops that we’ve never really seen from him before. Of course he has his funny moments in the film—how can he not?—but for the most part, he plays the role of Snyder straight as a washed up athlete looking for his last chance at Olympic glory. I also really liked van Houten as Rifenstahl. Her character exudes the confidence of a woman who knows her talent, but there is also a trepidation there as she knows what the Nazis are capable of and she’s never sure if she’s crossed the line or not. This is an interesting performance, since Riefenstahl’s true relationship to the Nazi Party and Hitler himself is still debated to this day.
Overall, Race is a perfectly enjoyable, but ultimately safe film that tries to tell an important story without getting too bogged down in the politics of it. Jesse Owens’ story is truly inspirational, but as is the case with a lot of biopics these days featuring our heroes, Race feels like it’s fighting with kid gloves. Still a worthwhile film to see, but it may leave you wanting in the end.